Zora Neale Hurston was a leading voice of the Harlem Renaissance during the early 20th century. Yet her remains laid in an unmarked grave from the time of her death in 1960 until 1973 when author Alice Walker had a headstone engraved with “A Genius of the South.” Like her remains, some of her earliest works were unacknowledged until recently. In 2018 her anthropological volume The Last Barracoon was published; Hurston conducted an extensive interview in 1927 with Cudjoe Lewis, one of the last African slaves to be taken to America. Hitting a Stick with a Straight Lick anthologizes twenty-one of her earliest stories that had appeared in newspapers and journals; eight were previously “lost.” Many had been forgotten until scholars such as Henry Louis Gates began to catalog African American newspapers and journals from the early 20th century.

Readers have been gifted with these previously hidden stories of both the same rural people of Florida in Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God and those who migrated to cities. Included is The Eatonville Anthology and the almost biblical Book of Harlem. As the editor Genevieve West says, “Although racism and ‘white folks’ present real challenges to the characters that people this collection, oppression is not the center of their lives.”

In these stories we find a wide range of emotions, from tears to humor, and many ugly and beautiful scenes that are reflections of all our lives. For example, the collection begins with the achingly sad “John Redding Goes to Sea” and continues with the morality tale of “The Conversion of Sam” and then the laugh-out-loud ending of “Possum or Pig.” Hurston’s anthropological lens on people, her dexterous narrative voice and clear love for her characters, whether they are misogynists or innocents, make these stories to return to frequently. Aren’t we fortunate that they were found and collected by Editor Genevieve West?

Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick
By Zora Neale Hurston; Edited by Genevieve West
Amistad, Imprint of HarperCollins Publishing (2020)

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